It starts and ends with the drum. Then, voices come in. Each singer takes a turn singing lead. To first-time listeners, the experience overwhelms. This is powwow music. Powerful is an understatement; spiritual, definitely. Few perform it better than the Northern Cree Singers — one of the most recognized and respected purveyors of the genre.
This story begins in 1982. The Wood brothers (Steve, Randy, Charlie, and Earl) from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation gathered and forged a plan to bring their music to a larger audience beyond the boundaries of their reservation in Maskwacis, Alberta. Over the past 40 years, they’ve succeeded. The band has swelled to 17 rotating members. They’ve released more than 40 albums and countless other live recordings. They’ve been nominated for nine Grammy awards and three Junos and they’ve performed around the world.
Flashback to 2001. Northern Cree released Rockin’ the Rez on U.S. label Canyon Records. The album was nominated for a Grammy in the Native American music album category. For the latest Record Rewind, Amplify caught up with Steve Wood. What follows is an engaging conversation with the artist reflecting on a dream come true, the global growth of powwow music and its popularity outside First Nations cultures, and how this art is helping the next generation of his people to preserve their Cree language, nêhiyawêwin.
Amplify: Take me back to 1982 when you and your brothers had the idea to form Northern Cree.
Steve Wood: The sense of it was formed long before that in a tiny log mud house on the Saddle Lake Cree community in the 1960s. My late father used to help run the ceremonies in the community and he was involved with the drum. People would often come to visit our house. We didn’t have much, but our custom was to always share food with visitors. Later in the evening, once the meal was done, everyone always gathered in our other room. Dad pulled out the drum. The men would sing and us children, my brothers and sisters, and all our guests, would join in and dance. The whole night was like magic. That is where the idea of Northern Cree really started. It was something we grew up with and it was just instilled in us.
Amplify: The drum is the main instrument in powwow music. Why makes it such an important symbol of the Cree culture?
Wood: The drum has always been a focal point of any First Nations community tribe. It has been with us since time immemorial. From the Cree perspective, there are two things that have always been there –– the ospwakan (the pipe) and the mistikwaskihk (the drum). First Nations people, before Western medicines arrived, had our own medicines and we still do today. We also had our own beliefs. Some of those beliefs that helped us thorough previous pandemics and the hard times were the belief in the pipe and in the drum … they were always prevalent. It started out as a ceremony and still is today. The pipe is always lifted before a gathering, but now it has become more of a social event … and it is growing.
Amplify: Tell me about this growth and some of your experiences in sharing your traditions and your music with others beyond the First Nations. Since the release of Rockin’ the Rez in 2001, you’ve travelled the world and taken your music to other cultures.
Wood: My group has travelled around the world and we’ve seen people picking up our genre of music. In Germany and the Czech Republic, they are having powwows. They are not First Nations people. It is neat to watch and for the most part they are very respectful about it. Powwow music is something that has been with us since time immemorial, but it is getting out to the world. M.I.A. sampled our music and won a Grammy award.
Amplify: Powwow music is ingrained in your First Nations culture, isn’t it?
Wood: Definitely. We started doing it, and still do it because it’s part of our life. We’ve taken the powwow out of its traditional setting and put it on stage just like other music. When I was 14-years-old I attended my first-ever concert in Edmonton, Alberta at the newly built Northlands Coliseum. We were on our way to a powwow in the south of Calgary and stopped in Edmonton. The artist was Kiss. I sat there watching Ace [Frelhey] and the rest of the band playing music and thought, ‘Why can’t we put our music on a stage like this?’ And I realized, we could. It’s just how you present it. I had a dream then and it has come to fruition. We’ve now performed in front of audiences of up to 50,000.
Amplify: Rockin’ the Rez, which came out 20 years ago, was really the record that started it all for Northern Cree wasn’t it? The album was nominated for a Grammy award and set you on the course to take powwow music to the world.
Wood: Definitely. We had done a few releases prior to this, but this one took us to the biggest showcase of music on the planet. That was big recognition. We recorded it live right in our Saddle Lake community. A local school was having a celebration and invited us to help them mark this occasion by doing a powwow. Canyon Records, out of Arizona, wanted to record. Their guy flew in from Phoenix and we did the recording over the course of a weekend on our reservation inside a packed hockey arena.
Amplify: Describe the music to those unfamiliar with the genre of powwow and what to expect when listening to the songs on Rockin’ the Rez.
Wood: First, everything you hear is natural … there is no amplification of the voices. To the trained ear, you will notice all the songs are different. If you can understand the lyrics you’ll understand they are different and just like in any other genre, they follow similar themes as mainstream music. A long time ago, the lyrics were composed of feats that our warriors had done, but today the themes are similar to Western music. Second, every member of the group contributes something. Everybody has a song within them. You don’t turn out 40 albums from one person. We’ve been together for so long and we all speak the same language. There are times a guy will have a song in his head, he will start to hum it around the drum, and then we all just join.
Amplify: Can someone not familiar with the Cree language learn to join in one of your powwows?
Wood: For sure. Here’s a story for you. About 10 years ago, we were hosting a celebration here in Maskwa Park (Bear Park). A gentleman had come all the way from Scotland to join us. It was his big dream to sing with us. We were joking around before we began, and we told him if he wanted to sing with us, then he would have to take a lead and start one of the verses. He agreed if we sang “Grey Owl,” the title track we had written for the 1999 Hollywood movie. Well, that young man, with hundreds of people around the drum, watching him, took the second lead and he did not lose the synch of the song. At the end, people were cheering for him. That was his first time ever singing that song.
Amplify: Any final thoughts on Rockin’ the Rez and the legacy of Northern Cree?
Wood: I have a passion for our language … our children picking it up and keeping it alive no matter what. That is our responsibility. These are our traditions. My son started in my group when he was 8-years-old. Today he is 33 and has taken over the lead role. That makes me think, maybe after I’m gone, the group will still be prevalent. When people talk about legendary, that is what legendary is. If you start something and it is still going long after you are gone from this world. That is legendary.
This August, Northern Cree is set to record its first independent album at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.